My knock at his sticker covered door could have been mistaken for the rapid pounding in my chest. I was two minutes late after insisting I should walk the bridge from Brooklyn into Manhattan in the middle of another rainy day in New York. The door opens: I am drenched and standing in front of a New York legend.
It has been a year since I last spoke to Daniel Arnold. Last October, we were discussing the prolific photographer’s first New York show, 1:21, at the Larrie gallery in Chinatown.
There have been many lifetimes in between now and then. This year was __________. (I’ll let you D-I-Y this and fill in the blank yourself. My choice words were: a tumultuous piece of garbage).
So there I was, sitting across from one of the greatest photographers in New York in the place most of us spent our entire 2020: his home.
What was it like being out in New York City when Biden officially won the presidency?
Daniel: I could not have anticipated the feeling of the past weekend. It's not in my vocabulary. Not to be hyperbolic even. Yes, there was hyperbole involved, but it was a new sensation.
My closest antecedent was like seeing some cartoons when I was 9 years old where at the end of the movie the curse is lifted and the charred landscape turns green again, the feeling of a new day. It’s unprecedented in my life.
It made me think of — and I heard this from other people too — that photo in Times Square of V-J Day. The nurse and sailor making out in the street. It was like a movie day. And it lasted throughout the weekend.
I basically spent the whole day trying to leave Washington Square Park. Could not get out of there. Every time I got away, something would pull me back. It felt like the center of my universe for that day.
Circumstances, you know, are obviously unimaginably heightened this year by COVID and the complete disruption of culture and society. That weight is still there, but everybody seemed to feel momentarily lifted.
Where were you when you found out?
Daniel: I was right here (his apartment). I was cutting a coffee can into a bird feeder, because suddenly I have Blue Jays and they like peanuts.
And you went straight to -?
Daniel: I walked out the door pretty much right away. I didn’t expect by any means the energy of that day. I figured people would be excited and maybe run around the street for ten minutes. But, that city wide -
Daniel: Major explosion of energy for days - I did not anticipate. I made it as far as Dimes Square and got a call from New York Magazine saying, “Hey are you out? Will you take videos?”
I was a little bummed not to be able to photograph it. But, it was kind of nice because it forced me to look at things a little differently than I usually do and be a little looser. I'm less committed to making a video than I am to making a photo. I went out and fell right into the business of just feeling the day.
I have been thinking a lot about this quote that you said in our last interview that’s been in my head since you said it, this idea of needing to take yourself outside when there’s so much going on in your head.
One of the reasons why I was interested in connecting with you again was because of the rivaling feelings of needing to get outside to get out of your head while also being in lockdown. How did you handle that?
Daniel: I mean the truth is I didn’t ever for one second consider staying inside. My version of being outside is not — by my estimation — the problematic version. My first wave of being outside was in gloves, double mask, like all precautions taken. When I go outside, I stay outside. I don’t go in anywhere. I barely interact with anybody.
It is funny to think of the photos — especially from that period — as being further away. I think the work suffers in a way, but it is emblematic of this bigger thing, of this cultural thing that there are no more close pictures.
I had a really immersive, like intimate experience in that first wave where it felt like I was at the hospital with a loved one. Like holding New York’s hand. Bothering to see for myself what was really happening. As usual, letting the camera pull me around. That was just like what I was supposed to do in this moment even if nobody ever sees proof of it.
Do you think they will?
Daniel: I don’t know. My kind of general feeling about work this year — although a chunk of it did make it into the New York Times — is that I am asking nothing of it. I am very clear on the fact that I don’t know what it is, what it means. I’m not following an angle. I’m not pulling a thread. I’m not trying to tell a particular story. I’m just making myself available and putting myself in front of it for as much time as I possibly can, for the primary purpose of just honoring the ritual and having the experience. This is such an elevated, separate time of being human. I guess I am going out of my way to try to really feel it.
What has been your relationship to other people? Do you feel like this experience has brought you closer to the people of New York or more separated?
Daniel: I don’t know. That’s a tough one. Like that whole aspect of the day to day slipped away kind of seamlessly. The world was shut down. I guess I was already on my own road drifting into isolation, and so this switch, in a way, was kind of natural. It didn’t make me lonely. I didn’t have any — as far as I remember — no perceptible anguish about the loss of socializing.
It wasn’t like I couldn’t go to my office anymore, or I couldn’t do my job anymore. If anything, I got to do my job like a thousand times harder.
With the closer people in my life, it's a new level of intimacy because of the turned up vulnerability and this new sensitivity to our humanness.
As much as I feel like I’ve drifted from my home, from my real family who are far away, the people who are in my orbit, I feel closer to them than ever. I also feel connected to the city in a way that I guess I always did, but in a broader, deeper way.
What would you say your relationship to the city is now?
Daniel: I don’t know. I don’t know how I would describe it. But I have thought several times throughout this: it’s going to be such an interesting aftermath. Like if and when the smoke clears, to have toughed it out with New York - I do feel like we have trauma bonded. Although honestly, maybe trauma bonded more with the city than with each other.
As someone whose photographs capture the life of the city, what were your feelings surrounding the President’s comments claiming that New York City was dead?
Daniel: The city’s not dead. The city is more alive than I’ve ever seen it. I’ve lived here for 17 years. The city is present and hustling and muscular and energetic in ways that I've never seen before. It’s like the office toy with the clacky balls: equal and opposite reaction. Whatever he [the president] says makes the opposite so viscerally true. In a way, it was great that he said that, so you could really feel this like apex “fuck you, idiot” feeling. To have that wrong of an assessment from the top office only made the reality on the ground feel more vital.
How do you begin to process this year?
Daniel: This year crystallized a feeling that has been ongoing throughout Trump, which is that like every two weeks you feel like you start to know what’s going on and the world gets flipped again.
I am in no hurry to show work or make an edit that claims to understand what the work is or what the story of this year is. It’s a good companion to this thing I already had going, which is focusing more on the process instead of results.
I haven’t processed this year. I feel like we’re going to be processing this year for the rest of our lives. Well, I hope that we get to process this year for the rest of our lives, that it's a standalone and not the beginning of some larger thing that we haven’t even begun to think of or deal with yet.
I guess that’s the implicit national prayer in electing Biden. I don’t think anybody is screaming from the mountain tops about Biden, but you would hope that he at least gets us back on course so we can think straight.
Do you think that was mixed into the feeling of this (election) weekend as well? I felt like there was a moment during the celebration where we forgot about this virus, like there was a brief period of space.
Daniel: Yeah. Space in ... like something that has been pressing down on you for long enough that you forget that it’s there. When that goes away, there’s metaphysical space that you couldn’t have anticipated.
The thing I always think of — I wouldn’t be surprised if I already said it to you last time — is this trick that they taught us in first grade where if you stand in a doorway and press your arms hard on either side of the jamb for a minute and then walk away, your arms just like drift to the sky without any effort. This is probably the best manifestation of that that I’ve ever experienced. The weight came off and everybody just lifted off the ground a little bit for a couple of days.
What has kept you feeling grounded in this time? Your relationship, your friends, Peanut (Daniel’s cat)?
Daniel: Home. It’s interesting that you wound up here because this place is blooming with proof of all the things that I’ve done to ground myself. I would not have thought of this whatsoever if you hadn't put that question that way. Look at all this shit in this obsessive, this growing of things phase. These grow lights and herb pots. Going to elaborate lengths to attract birds to the fire escape to begin with was to entertain my poor, lonesome cat. This is a new apartment too. I moved here after I met you. I moved here after the [Larrie] show. I think November first I moved here.
What part about this space makes you feel most at home? Did you add anything specifically during quarantine that makes it feel more like home to you?
Daniel: I couldn’t tell you anything intentional. It’s a funny case, this place. In a way it’s like found materials collage. Like there’s a lot of stuff in this apartment that was here when I moved in. All the furniture is built in. I threw out all my furniture to live here. All I brought was this bookshelf. And that bookshelf. And so I guess the burrowing — the me-ification — of it is very sort of incidental.
I could go backwards and identify the meanings of these accumulations. I think this room is very much the story of my year. I have made very few determined intentional decisions. I’ve kind of let all of the usual control tricks go away. I’ve accepted that I’m in the water.
It feels very safe.
Daniel: Yeah. It’s very cozy. It's funny - hardly anybody comes here.
Thank you for letting me in!
Daniel: Of course. I mean I am happy to share it. It’s the scene of my relationship. It’s the scene of processing my work. You’ve given me a gift to make me step away from it and look at it more objectively. It’s very unconsidered, but once you start looking around as if it’s meaningful, it’s really loaded.
Going back to spaces, I’ve been thinking about how this year, your work has been more readily available due to print sales and you’re becoming a part of people’s homes, a part of their collective spaces. You’re becoming a part of what makes people feel more at home in this new way. You’re in my space now!
Daniel: It’s such a nice life for these things. I have such a hard time being backwards looking. At least directly. I mean I guess there is something... A motivating force in all of this is my relationship with the past. Or my sensitivity to what in the present will be the meaningful past in the future.
For me, these photos are all to be let go of. It’s all my education. I don't really celebrate them as accomplishments or imagine a life that they’re entitled to. But they get passed on to other people who assign meaning that I could never come up with. And I think that’s kind of the only way that works.
The prints have identities beyond me. It’s more of a tarot. You project yourself onto the card. It means something in your life.
Anything you have added to your space this year?
Daniel: There’s tons of shit. My eBay history this year is outrageous. The amount of money that I’ve wasted on the comfort of accumulation is like crazy. I hadn't really thought of it til now, but that’s kind of a stand out thing.
* Daniel points at the bird feeder *
Daniel: The bird feeder? A trashy piece of plastic.
I like the can though.
Me and Daniel as if in sync: The can’s great.
Daniel: Look at that. The can is great, It is wrapped in paper and is about to rain for three days straight. It’s not going to survive.
I hope the can survives.
Daniel: I don’t think it’s going to survive. I think it’s well on its way to extinction actually.
It’s a relic of our time.
DA: It’s like a three day short time.
Last time we talked, you had alarms on your phone that were reminders to be aware of the fact that we’re just bodies on a giant rock. Do you still have the alarms on your phone?
Daniel: Yeah. I got rid of one of them: 4:47 is gone. 1:21 still happens. Now I have an 11:11.
Are they still effective right now?
DA: They’ve become kind of invisible. But, it’s actually very interesting to revisit that whole line of thinking and that show. It’s not actively in my mind, but the fact that I made such a moment out of that new discipline of letting the landscape of my emotional experience be a special occasion in the world that I can only document passively.
Having been put into a position to articulate that and expand on it in October of 2019 was such a perfect volleyball set up for this year. Plenty of people — so many photographers — have made a rigorous occupation of documenting this year, like going to the place where the story is, of crafting and really being a narrative journalist. Obviously there’s plenty of plot, plenty of visual plot to be followed.
My whole brain this year has been, “Don't question it. Don't ask anything of it. Don't ask it to be anything. Just accumulate. Go and be in front of it. Pile it up and figure out what it is later.”
Election day and election night was a really big observable out of body experience where the present felt like the past. There was no possible outcome that wasn't world shifting. No election has felt like that to me before, so massively consequential. Maybe that's partially a manifestation of this new photo-driven relationship with history.
You have this relationship with the city, I think so many other people view you as synonymous with the city even if it is outside of your own mental capability of even realizing that.
DA: Well it’s interesting to be pushed in that direction right now. Truth is I don’t think I ever really felt that until this year It always felt like the city was just the bootcamp and the template, but that there was more of a universally applicable thing. That I was not New York. That it was maybe New York energy that drove it, but it was just life.
This has been a really formative year with my relationship with the city. I am so rooted here. I am of it and, for my purposes, it is of me. For better or for worse.
You can find Daniel's work on instagram, @arnold_daniel.